University of Auckland biochemist Professor Juliet Gerrard is about to start her new role as Prime Minister's chief science adviser, taking over from long-serving Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. She talked to science reporter Jamie Morton about her hopes and aims.

You've worked across Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), universities and the Government as chairwoman of the Marsden Fund Council. How do you think that cross-sector experience will help you in the role?

Scientists across all subjects agree that you can test ideas and answer questions by carefully examining evidence.

But different disciplines ask their questions in different ways.


The time I spent observing all the panel meetings when I chaired the Marsden Council helped me understand these differences, and also how researchers from different disciplines judge what is "excellent" in somewhat different ways.

Marsden research is very fundamental, but my time at CRIs and Callaghan Innovation gave me exposure to more targeted and commercially driven science.

I think I have a balanced view of the value that all types of science can bring to New Zealand, on different time frames.

We need to look at the whole spectrum of activity rather than advocate for one type of science over another.

Is there anything you'd like to do differently in the role than your predecessor?

Sir Peter and I share a passion that science can make a difference to New Zealand, and that using evidence to inform policy can improve the quality of decisions that government makes, across a large range of issues.

We will inevitably have very different styles and approaches to delivering this message.

As Sir Peter described in his interview in the Herald, as the first in the role he had a focus on establishing the platform of science advice.

He's done a fantastic job, and we now have clear recognition of the value of the role and a growing team of departmental science advisors.

I'm keen to strengthen that group and work with them, which may give me more time to focus on making science accessible to a wider audience.

For example, I'm going to explore Instagram as a way to celebrate science in Aotearoa NZ (see @nz_chief_science_advisor).

I'm hoping people will send stunning science images to showcase, with a simple caption, via Twitter (@NZChiefSciAdvisor)

What areas of science do you see as priorities for focus? Has the PM advised you on anything she'd like more information on?

My first priority is to meet all the departmental science advisors across the ministries and learn about the projects they are working on.

I'll also be getting up to speed on ongoing projects such as the Participatory Science Programme, run out of the office by Dr Victoria Metcalf.

This is an innovative MBIE-funded initiative, which involves connecting members of the community and scientists to work on locally important questions.

It has been piloted in South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago and I'm enthusiastic to explore how we might roll it out nationally.

I'll also be travelling around New Zealand listening to scientists from lots of different institutions to get their ideas on how science can make a difference.

Then I will scoop all these ideas up, take them back to Wellington, and prioritise a programme of work with the Prime Minister at the end of August.

Are you keen to take a fresh look at the evidence around genetic modification? You'd be aware the biotech sector has concerns about New Zealand being left behind in this space.

A lot of people are asking this question and it is clear that our regulatory framework around genetically modified organisms is not coping well with the introduction of new technologies.

The fresh look at the evidence has already begun at the Royal Society Te Apārangi who are doing some great work in this area, not just to assess the technology but also to understand what it might mean for different communities and different applications.

I'll be meeting the Royal Society Te Apārangi regularly and am keen to build on, not replicate, their work.

This issue will undoubtedly be on the list of things to discuss.

We've heard some scientists advocate for the establishment of a Science Commission, over concerns the chief science adviser role wasn't independent enough from government. Did you ever have a view on this?

The independence of the role is absolutely critical, and was certainly thoroughly examined in the interview and appointment process.

I remain employed by the University of Auckland, not the government, which helps protect that independence.

One of the first things I'll be discussing with the departmental science advisors is how we can use that group more effectively to provide a collective independent view on some of the issues that arise, especially those that require a complex analysis across many different areas, such as energy and climate change.

I'll also be listening to those who have called for a commission and working out whether some of the advantages that system affords could be achieved by the departmental science advisor network.